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What is a French Horn?

Beethoven wrote sonatas for the French horn.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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"French horn" is both the name of a brass instrument and the name of an organ stop. This article focuses on the brass instrument. It is only in English that this instrument is called “French” — in French, German, Spanish, and Italian, for example, it is simply referred to with the language’s word for horn.

The history of the French horn begins with shepherds’ warning calls, hunting horns, and instruments made of the horns of animals. The modern horns, which usually are considered to form one of the four main divisions of the brass family, are wind instruments made of metal. The French horn used today is a valve horn.

The French horn has five parts: the body, the bell, the valve system, the mouthpipe, and the mouthpiece. The right hand, placed within the bell, not only supports the instrument, but also has a role in shaping the sound. The hand can also seal the bell to create the effect known as “handstopping.” Mutes are also added to the French horn to alter the timbre.

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The contemporary French horn generally has four valves, though instruments with as many as six can be found, and so-called “single” horns have only three valves, and is pitched in either F or Bb. On the four-valve instruments, called “double” horns, the fourth valve switches the instrument’s tuning from Bb to F or vice versa. The double horn is the typical orchestral horn, but there are also double descant horns in alto and soprano voicing, and triple horns are also available.

French horn parts generally are written with the treble clef and no key signature. Standard parts for the double horn in F and Bb are transposed so that they sound a fifth lower than written. Notable concertos for French horn were composed by Georg Telemann, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Paul Hindemith, Antonio Vivaldi, Richard Straus, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Sonatas for horn have been written by Ludwig von Beethoven, Hindemith, Sir Michael Tippett, and Francis Poulenc.

French horn players of note include Dennis Brain, Louis François Dauprat, Giovanni Punto, several members of the Lewy family, Franz Strauss, Helen Kotas, and Philip Farkas Several people who have made their name in other careers played horn. Otto Grahm, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, and actor Samuel L. Jackson both played French horn in their youth.

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